Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

American health crusader dies, age 96

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At one time, his face was one of the most recognizable in the country. That's because no U.S. surgeon general before or since C. Everett Koop has used the job's bully pulpit so effectively to prod Americans into taking better care of themselves.

Koop died Monday at age 96, his own longevity a testament to his relentless advice on living a long life. Atop the list: Don't smoke. Using research connecting cancer to tobacco use, Koop urged people not to smoke if they hadn't started, and to quit if they had.

Wearing the gold-braided naval uniform of surgeons general, Koop, with his Captain Ahab beard and stern demeanour, was an imposing figure. When he said smokers are 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer, people listened. During his 1981-89 tenure, the share of Americans who smoked dropped from 33 to 26 per cent.

A special report that Koop prepared in 1986 still represents the best advice for avoiding the sexual transmission of the AIDS virus: Either practise abstinence or monogamy, or use a condom. The Reagan White House wanted him to leave out the condoms part, but Koop wouldn't let politics get in the way of the truth.

Koop grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but Philadelphians considered him one of their own. After finishing at Cornell University Medical College, he completed his residency at University of Pennsylvania Hospital and then became chief surgeon at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, a post he held for 35 years.

Koop was a star surgeon who did groundbreaking work. His team was known for its surgeries to correct birth defects. In fact, his statements extolling the right of infants with congenital defects to receive medical care caught the attention of the anti-abortion movement, which recommended his appointment as surgeon general to President Ronald Reagan.

Koop's conservative backers became agitated, though, when the devoutly religious surgeon general reported he could not conclude that abortions are medically unsafe. Thus, he said, whether a woman has an abortion must, in most cases, be decided on the basis of her morality or religion.

Too few in today's golden age of political expediency similarly allow truth to overrule ambition. Some say Koop's candour cost him an appointment as secretary of health and human services. It doesn't matter. Koop's service to his country was outstanding.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2013 A15

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